The Love Song of an Ugly Dog

Jan 2 · 20 min read

I remember everything about that first night. Everything about her, even the parts that are blurred with time and half-light and old tears.

I was in a hired LandCruiser, so I must have been heading out of town on assignment the next day, or perhaps I had come back from somewhere. Muscat was base camp, and I roamed free across Oman, shooting and writing, half-blind, half-seeing, half-believing.

I was following Rob, the teacher from South Africa. Rob, who would die years later, so quietly that I didn’t even know I was looking at a dead man’s Facebook page until I read the comments. I wish I had stayed longer on those nights when we’d meet at the roadside Pakistani restaurant and go for a drink to his place, sipping whisky on rough carpets thrown over armchairs, paintings and carved wood and fossils and books and CDs strewn around, and a mouse somewhere in a drawer that he was trying to find. Rob and I had met up that night on some anonymous street on the outskirts of Muscat, and we split up to find the house where his friends, all strangers to me, were having a birthday party. Although I was the explorer, it was Rob who found the place first. I remember reversing the massive car against the white wall and getting out. Women came out of the gate to greet us. But more than the people, who were a blur to me, I remember the dogs: two of them, though you couldn’t be so sure because they were everywhere, and there was this swirl of dogs and people and excitement, and I was saying hello and trying to pet them and it was dark.

They were half stray dogs, and they shot in and out of the villa, through the open gate. One had a thick, velvety black coat, while the other was larger and had short brown hair and a naked, speckled breast and looked like any other stray dog on the streets of Muscat, like any of the limitless number of strays across India and Africa. Dogs aren’t native to Oman, and every one found on its streets traces its origin to lands across the seas, brought by people on boats over the centuries. Brought to a land where they were never supposed to be, a land and culture and climate that would torture them over generations, just as they would the people on the boats.

They were both rescued off the street, the anonymous street Rob and I had just stepped off, one in an endless grid laid out over the desert, parallel to the sea. Streets that only numbers could attach themselves to. Streets that only homeless dogs could call home. Streets and dogs without names.

A lifetime later, and a continent away, I would look back at that night, and wonder: should I have walked away? It was a night that would change my life, that would extend my journey by continents, that seemed to give me things I thought I craved, that would make someone fall in love with me, or with the idea of me, and one that would lead to great things, and also misery and heartbreak. What would have happened if I had stepped back from that night? I would have saved someone decades of her life. But who was I, to let the moment pass? Just a kid with a LandCruiser, with a tank full of cheap petrol and an expensive camera and nothing to lose. I was a man without a past and without a future, barely even a man. As innocent as young dogs playing, half-owned, half-free, flowing through villas and streets, gardens tended by Pakistanis, evenings and dreams and perfumes made for sultans. Who could have resisted. And me, in the half-dream: almost believing my own story that I sold on nights like these. I should have walked away. But as my father had said many years before that night, as he saw through me: I was a drowning man, clutching desperately at anything that passed my way. I had been drowning a long time.

I remember the black one that night, standing with his front paws on the table, sniffing at the Lebanese takeaway. He was always cute, no matter what he did. He was a gorgeous little dog with a soft, velvety coat, a furry curled tail, intelligent brown eyes and sharp ears. He was everyone’s darling.

I was petting the other, the brown one, and she must have liked it because I remember her on her back, her pink belly turned to me, and me kneeling over while everyone else sat around the table and candles. Thinking back now, that posture of mine would seem suicidal for a stranger to assume with a dog like her. I learnt that very quickly.

There was something that flickered across her eyes, something in a flash in that blur of a night. I can see it all now, every moment in slow motion, imprinted forever on my brain. I can anticipate every thought and tell you everything she had felt, every secret fear and anger. But that evening was different, and I was just another stranger. A strange man, even worse. And suddenly she was flipping right side up and then the sound of teeth, snapping together very sharply in the shadows between us, again and again, moving towards me. She must have been growling but I remember only silence between teeth.

But she forgave me, as she would for everything else over our lifetimes together, for everything I did and did not do. That was the last time she was ever angry at me. She spent the rest of her life loving me.

I was shaken and I sat down, and the Tunisian girl made a joke about me petting dogs (although it was she who was scared of them), and the Omani to my right wanted another beer, and the hostess got up and got him one from the cool box. Oman was the land of the cool box.

There was a Jeep Grand Cherokee parked in the garden. There must be a man around, I thought. The hostess came back, with the Omani’s beer. Golden, curled hair and kohl-lined eyes in the candlelight, under the bougainvillea. And, for a moment, she held my gaze. It had been a long, long time since that had happened.

A long time, in a land of emptiness. Empty enough to hold all our dreams and fears. Enough for us to see whatever we wanted. Some saw dead-ends, and slave-like conditions. Some saw dictators, others sultans. And others: cheap petrol, bootlegged alcohol and dancing girls, anything to survive the monotony of a place where nothing was allowed to happen. And all of us were bribed into silence.

Alcohol was sort-of banned in Oman, banned for Omanis, who were Muslim, or were supposed to be. Banned for the expatriate workers, unless you had a permit, which entitled you to a certain percentage of your salary’s worth of alcohol. When I hadn’t used up mine the driver in my company would plead for it since he always finished his (and since he was only a driver, his salary was much less than mine, and so was the percentage of it that he could use on alcohol). And then there was the black market: bottles shuffled behind counters in the ‘Foodstuff’ shops that littered the streets, each one staffed with a gaggle of Keralites, subservient enough to endure lifetimes of abuse. And then there were the bars with the dim lights, where even the Omanis could drink, like the one who sat, drooping lower and lower into his beer while my first flatmate took me out on my first night in Muscat. These were the backroads of Ruwi, where you could get a Keralite thaali by day and a five-rial Chinese girl by night.

There were separate halls inside, and you chose your girls depending on nationality. Muscat was incredibly cosmopolitan, and also the most racist place I have ever lived in. The women were always bored, making fitful, half-hearted attempts at moving limbs here and there. There was simply nothing much to do, as often was the case in the city. The men sat at tables, all the chairs facing the stage, drinking beer and not saying a word. The most interesting character was the inevitably slimy man in the corner, between women and men, who would have an armful of plastic beaded garlands, and twirl the last one around his fingers, twitching it in fitful loops that mirrored the movements on stage. When you liked a girl you had to motion to the guy and give him a fistful of sweaty rials, and he’d go and garland your favorite for you. And she’d show you her pleasure by looking at you through the crowd, and that’s the most you could hope for. That and the promise of more. That was the promise of Muscat, guaranteed to be broken.

She must have been two or three years old that night. She must’ve been born in that area of newly-claimed streets full of villas (far from the subcontinental apartments of Ruwi, where the labor force lowest down the food chain retired for the night, living as cheaply as they could, sending as much as possible back home, as lifetimes passed). These streets must’ve been fancier some years ago, but there were even newer ones elsewhere that attracted the money, and they were getting dusty.

She must’ve been a puppy when she was first adopted by the American family next door. Perhaps in those days she was even cute, although no one would ever have called her good looking after that. The American father was a young, aggressive guy who had come for the money, as all the expats had, and anything local by way of contact with people and culture was not part of his plan. His villa had high walls, like everyone else’s, but what set his apart was the razor wire he had installed above it, and all that was seen of him was the blur of the Hummer as he went back and forth to Halliburton. The company was very discreet in Oman, and most people on the street never knew it was even there.

Maybe they got bored with her, or perhaps she just wasn’t the dog they wanted once she’d outgrown her puppiness. So sometime within those first couple of years she had not only been adopted from the street but was thrown out again by the only humans she had known, destined to rot like all the other strays as they lay baking in the sun. Except she was a stray that lay rotting outside what had been her home. She never left that street. And it was there that she would be adopted again.

I was not the one who rescued her, but I heard of it. How she was so ferocious you couldn’t even give her water. But the bowl was left out for her, and in time, the distance of hot street between the dog the color of the desert and the woman with the golden hair grew shorter. Every other human, and especially men, had to keep as far away as possible.

The vet said she had babies once, and I have always cried for them. How could I have not been there to save them. I would have brought them up as my own children. Did they starve? Were they killed? Or are they alive somewhere, mere skeletons and ghosts. I hope they died.

She was a skeleton when she was rescued that second time, 12 kilos of skin and bone. But there was always something about her that set her apart from a world full of stray dogs who were dying to submit themselves to the first stranger who might throw them a glance, desperate for attention, for love, for food, for anything.

She was desert fire, and the harder and hotter it got on the street, the wilder her fire raged. The abuse of men, the fight for territory, the 50-degree summer, the racers of souped-up Subaru WRXs and Honda CRXs from the inner neighborhoods who would run over dogs for sport. The police who would shoot strays on sight, cowboy-style. The wild-eyed children, and their screams and stones. The ever-present invocation of religion as justification for cruelty and stupidity. All of this made her stronger. And no one knew this better than any dog that had the misfortune of being within eyesight of her. She didn’t have to fight. Every dog she ever crossed saw it in her. It shattered them. Most of them didn’t even know what it was, it was so beyond what they had seen or known, so far beyond their imagination. Whole packs of street dogs ran from her. Pet dogs would shut up, in shock, not even knowing if they should be scared. It was beyond fear: this was incomprehension. She was beyond the imaginable.

And she had fun doing it. She chased the passing Keralites on their bicycles. She didn’t like Pakistani laborers. And when the Bangladeshi gardener was foolish enough to actually open the gate and walk in, she was so furious he climbed over the wall instead of going back the way he’d come. You would be stupid not to run. She didn’t like men, and the bigger and rougher the man, the more she’d hate him. And she didn’t like men looking at her. This was a mistake everyone made. Because she’d be looking at you, and when your eyes met it would be you who would have to flinch. But by then you had already made your mistake. And things would only get worse for you.

She was born for it. It was her element, her character, and she loved it. Her first reaction in a new situation, when she saw a new person, or a dog, or simply stepped out of the door, was to pre-empt the world with the beginnings of a roar. Others might have wagged, but she’d form an ‘O’ with her mouth, and a thin, punk-ish line of hair down her back would rise and she’d let out a sigh that could morph into a roar, depending on her mood and what she saw. But even if she didn’t see anything, this would be the minimum. And she’d let out this “haw…” which could escalate, or not. But when she got really furious, like around another dog, she would lose her mind. Her legs would shake and she’d choke, and if you were too close to her, she’d snap at you. Not because she wanted to bite you, but because by then she wasn’t even thinking. She never bit me, but she did put her teeth over my knee or arm just momentarily over the years, all the while focusing on the other dog. You had to restrain her while still keeping away.

You might be forgiven for thinking of her as a monster, especially if you’d met her then, ugly and aggressive. But she was much more complex than that. She was an entire world in herself. And she had her own reasons for instinctively hating men, and dogs. But she also tolerated others, and liked a few. There was this big dog on the street, and I wondered if he had been the father of her puppies. He was a beautiful, tall dog with soft, wavy hair. And he used to roam that particular street too, and he’d got so familiar he’d walk up to me and stand up, front paws resting on my chest. There were others like him, obviously not originally from the streets. Expatriates leaving Oman regularly shed their dogs onto the street. The blank space absorbed all kinds of sins.

But there was only one dog she ever loved, and I don’t know why she chose him. He was a puppy when he was first seen on the road. And Möhrli was adopted with her too.

The one word that most described her was intense. She did everything to the maximum degree. She either loved or hated. And she not only loved him, she was obsessed with him. She would follow him around the house, get up and start eating when she saw him at the bowl, even when she wasn’t hungry. She never liked milk, but he did, and she’d start drinking it when he was offered some. He’d eat half his chicken, and she’d finish hers and then eat his too. Sometimes, charged after her meal, she hunted him like some sort of stalker, and his bushy tail would go down.

He was always a bit cat-like, aloof, and perhaps secretly thought she was a pain. Sometimes she was so eager to be around him she’d climb into his bed, and they’d lie there, back to back, two dogs in a nest made for one. Luckily, he was so easy he just didn’t care. His blasé attitude also frequently drove her nuts. She was obsessive. And he’d just wander off, or not come when you called him, or didn’t want to walk, or came because you threatened him, but kept looking back, and always point in the direction of home if you took a break. He was like a sulky little boy who got away with everything because he was so cute. When he did finally come and join everyone, after a lot of sweet talking and threats, she would immediately attack him, half scolding him for being such a dumbo, half overjoyed she could be with him again.

She loved him so much she always allowed him to win when they were play-fighting. He was always the one who would get upset first, crossing the line in their games. Sometimes she would be merciless, running in circles around him, poking him with her nose, shoving him by running into him. He’d make some half-hearted attempts to catch her but although he was much more agile he’d never be able to get her.

How many years would we walk together, over desert and sand and rock in Oman, through the Forest of the Druids in central France, the ragged edges of the Swiss Jura, and finally the highest corners of the Emmental Alps. The dog with barely any hair, the dog the color of the desert, walking through snow. She ploughed through the winter with pure adrenaline, going further than she ever should, until the cold caught up and her eyes looked tired and her nose crinkled sideways. I would turn back, but she would always have gone on. She’d probably have charged till she collapsed.

No one would ever call her a beauty. Barely covered in short brown hair, she was quite pink underneath, and as the hair receded you could see more of her skin: a kind of mottled, blotched pink and white, more pig than dog, an uneven smear that started on her mostly-naked breast and raged across her belly. Over the years she got even uglier, if that was possible, as she lost hair on the tip of her tail, till the last millimeters stuck out obscenely, naked like a newborn mouse. In her eleventh year she started sprouting warts, pink braille-like bumps, and even one under the tip of her chin, which started off circular but then developed teeth-like serrated edges on its bottom that darkened slightly over time.

The only beautiful things about her were her eyes: large and translucent brown, with the infinite depth of entire universes, in which I lost myself repeatedly.

And that massive heart, which I could hear thump till forever as I pressed my ear against her broad chest of bleached hair as she yawned self-consciously. How you have loved me, and how you have suffered my soul, as tormented as yours once was.

Had I ever thought this story would end well? How she suffered me, too. I tried to repay love with loyalty, but by then it was too late. A lifetime after that night of candlelight and bougainvillea, the golden haired girl would turn to me, and say, “the only reason you’re still with me is because of Amoua.”

Months after she died, she came to me in my dreams, night after night. They were not my usual nightmares of violence and fathers and running away and waking up shaking, sweat-soaked. They were calmer dreams that I remembered better, and she walked through them, just as she had walked through my life, and when I woke up I had to remind myself that it was not real.

One night, I was woken by a sound, of silence. I looked down and there were two foxes that had jumped into the garden, and they flowed through the snow like water, silver ghosts in the moonlight. One jumped onto the fence, and, poised on the thin wood, looked back at the other, and then both were gone. I still don’t know if I saw this or dreamt it.

It was a black night and there were wild boars around, rustling through the edges of the forest and the blackberries between fields, haunting this no-man’s land of central France, this gaping hole in the heart of the country that was imploding into itself. And the dog who everyone loved was out barking in his high pitched voice and when he came in for a break to check on us, his ring of a tail wagging between the ancient stone walls, he was in a good mood, but that was the last time I saw him alive.

I went out with the headlamp on, and there was just silence and thorns, and then him practically under my feet, his tongue out and already blue in the old torchlight and this cold in my heart and disbelief and knowing at the same time, yet hoping desperately. I thought he’d been attacked by a boar but there was no blood, only a bit of wetness where he’d soiled himself as he fell down, dead instantly, his legs frozen in mid run. Or had he struggled and screamed for me in agony. God, what an unbearable thought. And I picked up his soft dead body and ran for the car still hoping he’d live, and drove through the deserted streets of the dying country with a dead dog, all the while cursing god, the god I knew never existed. But if he did exist: goddamn you god, damn you to death. Past the pond and the old Monsieur’s house, the church of Dontreix with its bell that could haunt you on quiet nights, and then racing through Auzances. I was calmer by the time the vet arrived, as Möhrli lay in his bed on the sidewalk, so still and beautiful, under the streetlight between Roux’s Assurance and Vétérinaires de la Haute Marche. The vet was young and tired and beautiful with black curly hair and a cigarette she flung on the road, and she knew he was dead even before she looked into his eyes. Everyone knew it except me and by then I knew it too.

It was my first death, animal or human. I had never even been to a funeral. But it was mine now. Death changes you forever. You can get over it but you always have the knowledge of it. It follows me. And I see it in her eyes, the dog I was left with. And that night I wished it was her who was dead, not him.

Life would have been different with just him. He could sit quiet in a car, never pull hard on a leash, be taken everywhere, and was friendly with everyone.

And now, lying with me in the center of France, in the sun on the grass under the ancient walnut tree that loses a branch each winter. An aging lioness just a few meters from where I buried Möhrli under the lime tree, behind the hazelnuts, digging between the roots in the cold morning, his body stiff after the night dead in the back of the Subaru, but his hair still soft as I lower my face into it one last time, whispering that I love him and I always will. I have shivered through the night but am calm now. I cover him with branches, and then soil, and then river pebbles from the gravel pile and then a ring of stones, and then some coral from Oman. I walk behind the hazelnuts every year when no one’s looking, checking on the grave.

Don’t die, I whisper, so no one hears. Except her, and me, and there’s no one around. But words of such fear they should never be heard. I told her not to die, to stay with me, that I’d never leave her. I’ll love you forever… Words and whispers I have repeated into the back of her ear, soft and translucent, delicate enough to almost see through. Enough for a whisper to pass on. Chanted, like meditation. Over the years, again and again, rising with urgency and time. Oh Amoua, why didn’t you listen to me. I thought we would live forever.

For, you see, I knew. No one else did. Not the once golden haired girl who rescued her. Not the vet, who first felt that lump (I cried, when we got back, and she licked my tears). Not the hospital in Thun, who took it out and said it was nothing. No one in this world, except me, and, perhaps her. Perhaps that is love. She was, by then, my soulmate. I read every expression she had, felt everything. And I saw something in her eyes. Something had changed since Möhrli died, and I felt it too. Perhaps I was dying too. I had been dying a long time.

One day, down an icy road, with her by my side. I remember thinking of what would happen if I died there, in the snow. What I would think of, of all these lost years, after all the tears that had to be shed were shed, till none were left. After all these words. I wondered what I would hang on to, in that last moment. And I realized it was her. Pathetic, I know. But we don’t choose the one’s we love. And if that one were to be, for me, an ugly dog, so be it.

As each winter shortened our lives, a strange thing happened. No one noticed it, but we mellowed. After all the violence of our lives, after all the pain we had passed on to others, after all the butterflies that savage, solitary winds had slaughtered. But the ones who had suffered still blamed us for our past, and I suppose they were right. Only the two of us knew we had changed.

By then, Amoua had turned very, very soft. Once the aggression had worn off, she possessed a beauty only an old dog could. Strange things happened. At Trittschwendi, where the old lady tended her garden before the road disappeared, we came across a black, mostly-blind kitten, barely bigger than the palm of my hand. I would never have let Amoua near a creature so vulnerable for fear she might rip it apart. But now she stood over it, silently. Was she protecting it? The blind kitten stayed on the ground, under her, and I stared, so disbelieving I couldn’t cry.

And one winter day, I left home, and I forgot to say bye. It’s odd, because I always said it, said to wait for me, said something so she’d know we weren’t going out for a walk together and get excited. Said something so she wouldn’t be scared I’d take her to the car. Said I loved her. But I didn’t, this morning. It was the day after Christmas and it was a horrible winter, with milky skies and hardening snow, and there was a storm coming, and I had a few hours to get on my snow shoes, up the side of the mountain to a hut I’d seen from far away.

It was called Pfosteregg, and it lay abandoned for the winter, and there was no one there and no reason to be there. I shot it between the mountains, in front of the coming storm, and then I turned around and walked back.

And something happened in those few hours, while I was away, something I had felt happening for the past years, something that had clung to my heart, something that had made me whisper to her, made me plead with her, for her life and mine.

I got home, but it was silent, and that fear returned, as it had every time I hadn’t heard her. But she was there, lying in her bed, by the window where the sun would have fallen on her, where she would have loved it. But there was no sun. And all my prayers and all these years were for nothing, as I buried my face one last time behind her ears, still slightly warm, breathing her in.

And the girl with the golden hair? She had been right all along, even as I had thought she knew nothing. There was nothing keeping me here, anymore.

I had started to write her story months ago, with the fear of impending doom hanging over me. But I was out of time now. And I had lost everything. There was only one thing left for me to do.

And so I sat down, after she’d died, and wrote so she’d live forever. Or perhaps I wrote for myself, that I might survive, even if I didn’t deserve to.